DRIP by drip: have we given up on privacy?

Saturday 18 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Frobisher Auditorium 2, Barbican Technological Innovation

The revelations made last year by Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the US National Security Agency (NSA), were a sharp reminder of just how much the state can invade our supposedly private lives. Snowden claimed the NSA and other agencies had hacked social-media and other online services, were routinely intercepting communications, and even tapping the phones of other world leaders. Yet it was also well known that legislation like the PATRIOT Act in the US and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) in the UK already gave the authorities wide powers. In July, the UK government announced - with all-party support - emergency legislation (DRIP) to reinstate surveillance powers created by an EU directive in 2006, which were struck down by the European Court of Justice earlier this year. In a report published this year, telecoms operator Vodafone explained how such legislation impacts service providers. Communications companies can be forced to give access to their customers’ communications and, in many countries, there is very little that can be reported about these access requests - even statistics about how many requests are being made. Even telecoms companies’ own senior management are kept in the dark about what is being done.

Yet, it could be argued, this kind of snooping is fairly limited. What is much more problematic, argue some, is a lack of concern - or even opposition to - privacy. This is very clear in relation to social media, where users seem relaxed about revealing the most intimate details of their lives on public or semi-public services like Twitter and Facebook, a trend not helped by the byzantine privacy settings on such services that often assume that things will be shared unless explicitly made private. Disclosure and revelation seem to be the order of the day.

Campaigners for greater transparency would go further, at least in relation to government and business, arguing that there should be a legal obligation to record and disclose all kinds of discussions and decisions. For example, in 2012, the UK education secretary, Michael Gove, was told that emails sent from a private email address must be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act. In other words, using electronic communications to work out ideas for government policy in private would be impossible.

What has become of the idea of privacy? Don’t we need a space free from prying eyes to work out half-formed thoughts and feelings, or is it fair enough to know what businesses and ministers are doing? Do we mistrust each other so much that every kind of electronic interaction must be watched over by others? Can the threats of terrorism and crime really justify keeping tabs on everyone? Or is the cliché that if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear apply? Given our propensity to reveal all online voluntarily, are fears about state intrusion now redundant?

Listen to the debate:

Jennifer Betts
researcher, Centre for Secure Information Technology (CSIT), Queens University Belfast

Phil Booth
coordinator, medConfidential

Stephen Deadman
Group Privacy Officer and Head of Legal – Privacy, Security & Content Standards, Vodafone Group

Professor Bill Durodié
head of department and chair of international relations, University of Bath

Dr Natasha McCarthy
head of policy, British Academy; member, steering committee, Forum for Philosophy, Engineering and Technology

Dr James Panton
head of politics, Magdalen College School, Oxford; associate lecturer in politics and philosophy, Open University; co-founder, Manifesto Club

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Institute of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Dr James Panton head of politics, Magdalen College School, Oxford; associate lecturer in politics and philosophy, Open University; co-founder, Manifesto Club
Recommended readings
Our suicidal newspapers are throwing press freedom away

The Tory papers seem to want their own human rights abolished. The leftist ones cheer when journalists are arrested. Does their civil war matter more to them than their civil liberties?

Nick Cohen, Spectator, 11 October 2014

Every 73 seconds, police use snooping powers to access our personal records. Who'll rein them in?

Anti-terror laws are being used to suck in sensitive data without the traditional protections. It’s journalists now. It could be you next

Fraser Nelson, Spectator, 11 October 2014

We Want Privacy, but Can’t Stop Sharing

Imagine a world suddenly devoid of doors. None in your home, on dressing rooms, on the entrance to the local pub or even on restroom stalls at concert halls. The controlling authorities say if you aren’t doing anything wrong, then you shouldn’t mind.

Kate Murphy, New York Times, 4 October 2014

Spying and Surveillance: The Snowden Files

The former director of GCHQ, Sir David Omand, fears that leaks have done untold damage and endangered state security.

BBC Radio 4, 3 February 2014

Revealed: how US and UK spy agencies defeat internet privacy and security

• NSA and GCHQ unlock encryption used to protect emails, banking and medical records • $250m-a-year US program works covertly with tech companies to insert weaknesses into products • Security experts say programs 'undermine the fabric of the internet'

James Ball, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald, Guardian, 6 September 2013

Let’s stop kowtowing to the cult of transparency

The demand that every corner of officialdom be thrown open to public view has only made politics a more deceptive, less principled sphere.

Frank Furedi, spiked, 5 October 2010

Seeing through the dogma of ‘transparency’

Learning more about what goes on behind closed doors won't solve the social and political problems that face us. In fact, the obsession with disclosure only reinforces distrust in society.

Sean Collins, spiked, 30 November 2007

follow the Institute of Ideas


Keep up to date with Institute of Ideas news and events by joining our mailing list.

Session partners